Contaminating science


BACK in 1961, when Dwight Eisenhower warned about the "potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power" in what he termed the "military-industrial complex," the outgoing president could not have been more prescient about the nation today.

One example, outlined in a recent series by the Los Angeles Times, is the manner in which the military and its contractors have, 45 years later, combined in a dangerous campaign to sidetrack the federal Environmental Protection Agency from its role in protecting Americans from cancer-causing industrial pollution.

The stories cite the Pentagon's assault on a 2001 report by the EPA on trichloroethylene, a probable human carcinogen and trigger for birth defects that has migrated from dumps into public water supplies to become "the most widespread water contaminant in the nation."

TCE is a solvent once used by industry and at military installations to degrease metal parts. A new report on its dangers is due this summer from the National Academy of Sciences. In the meantime, the Pentagon's campaign to downplay and create doubt about the hazard has left millions of people potentially at risk for many years.

The tactics, employed widely within the Bush Administration, are familiar: Claim the EPA's alarming findings are based on "junk science" and fed by politically "left-leaning" scientists.

So, who is more believable? Scientists whose job it is to look out for the public or scientists who work for a government agency - in this case the Pentagon - or industries faced with billions of dollars in cleanup costs?

According to Gina Solomon, an expert in environmental science at the University of California at San Francisco, who is also associated with the Natural Resources Defense Council, "The evidence on TCE is overwhelming. We have 80 epidemiological studies and hundreds of toxicology studies. They are fairly consistent in finding cancer risks that cover a range of tumors. It is hard to make all that human health risk go away."

But casting doubt on science and scientists - other than its own - is what the Pentagon is all about, especially when the economic stakes are high. The potential danger to people is secondary.

So far, the tactic has been successful. Even if the upcoming report finds that TCE is as dangerous as the EPA believes, the findings are likely to be challenged and solutions delayed.

That's more bad news for hundreds of contaminated communities, many of them around 1,400 current or former military installations in Texas, New York, Florida, and California, where cancer and related maladies are epidemic and residents have been waiting helplessly for years for someone to do something.

Ironically, all the while its research officials have been claiming there is no solid evidence of severe danger from TCE, the Pentagon has been spending hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to clean up contamination.

At this point, it is hard to say who or what has been hurt the worst - the people directly affected by TCE or the capacity of the EPA to serve as a meaningful watchdog for health hazards.

One thing is certain, though: This is precisely the sort of "misplaced power" that Dwight Eisenhower warned about nearly a half-century ago.